Grasping the dais for support, 95-year-old Holocaust survivor Josef Konigsberg broke into tears. He is the only living person in Germany able to recount first-hand the bravery of Helmut Kleinicke, who was posthumously awarded the designation of Righteous Among the Nations at the Israeli Embassy in Berlin on January 14.
“This is one of the most beautiful days of my life,” Konigsberg said, locking eyes with Kleinicke’s daughter, Juta Scheffzek, who was seated not far from him. “Thank you, thank you.”
The recognition of Righteous Among the Nations is bestowed by Israel’s Holocaust memorial centre Yad Vashem to those who are verified to have risked their lives to save Jews during World War II. Israeli Ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff presented Scheffzek with a certificate together with Konigsberg, which Scheffzek accepted on her father’s behalf.
Kleinicke, a Nazi party member, was only publicly acknowledged in recent years as the saviour of perhaps hundreds of Jews at the height of the Holocaust. He is just the 628th German to be given the recognition, and one of the only recipients who was also a member of the Nazi party.
For reasons not entirely clear — perhaps out of modesty, or possibly to avoid standing out for what was then a controversial distinction in post-war Germany — Kleinicke kept quiet about his heroism until his death in 1979 at the age of 72. He said little to his daughter about his wartime activities, and sent no reply to the three survivors who wrote him after the war’s conclusion.
Three years ago, a report by Israel’s Kan national broadcaster cast light on Kleinicke’s actions, captured testimony from numerous people saved by Kleinicke during the war, and united Scheffzek with some of the survivors in Israel. It also caused Scheffzek to do some more digging of her own.
At the ceremony, Scheffzek said that looking into her father’s story, as well as visiting Israel three years ago, has significantly changed her life.
“It verified what my father said to me in very few words — and I never knew if he had been telling the truth,” she said.
According to the survivor testimony given to Kan in 2017, Kleinicke, who had joined the Nazi party in 1933, took advantage of his position as a senior official in charge of construction in Chrzanow, Upper Silesia, to “claim” Jews as workers. His intervention rescued them from transport to Auschwitz, located just 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.
“Those of us who worked for Kleinicke were like VIPs,” one survivor told the network. “We had a certificate that we worked for him, and that was our insurance policy.”
Kleinicke also reportedly sheltered many Jews in his basement — especially those who were weakened and at risk of deportation to Auschwitz — and alerted Jews about upcoming roundups.
It came to the Nazis’ attention that many Jews were going missing under Kleinicke’s command, Scheffzek told those gathered at the event, which led to his reassignment to military training as punishment in 1943.
Kleinicke didn’t keep records of the number of Jews he saved, but survivors estimate it to be at least in the hundreds.
Addressing the audience at the January 14 event, Konigsberg said that Kleinicke personally came and snatched him out of the transport line to Auschwitz when he was 16.
“I owe him my life,” Konigsberg said. “My mother came and begged him to rescue me. Kleinicke grabbed me and said that I was his best worker.”
“I feel like this is the closing of a circle,” Scheffzek told The Times of Israel following the ceremony. “It was a very long and emotional search to discover the truth about my father, and I hope that people in America, the UK, and Israel will hear about it.”
“When you’re in the context of Germany, you’re never free of the historical dimension of the Holocaust, and it’s a very heavy burden to bear for the Germans, and also obviously for the Jewish people, and it’s always there,” said Issacharoff. “And I think it’s really important that this type of ceremony also recognises that there were a few really important people who did the right thing. And that, to me, is the main message that should come out of this.”